Tag Archives: Narratives

Change Requires Action, Perhaps Becoming the Cork Dork

In the past couple weeks, I have learned that life change doesn’t mean focusing on getting rid of the things you don’t want, but instead filling your life up with the things you do want until they take up all space. The process of getting where you want to be requires action, forward-moving momentum, at best taken in stride with baby steps: the easiest way to form new habits and change behavior.

Personally, I may not see myself in the restaurant industry forever, but I am doing everything I can to make it a positive experience until I fully progress toward something else. For example, I use downtime before the customer rush to study vocabulary words, which makes me feel more empowered about my writing. So far, I have memorized approximately 135 new words from moiré and lugubrious to obsequious and redolent. And I’ve gotten the other servers involved, bringing out there inner sesquipedalian by holding story writing and word rhyming competitions. We recently debated the difference between decimate, eradicate, extirpate, exterminate, obliterate, annihilate, and eviscerate.

In my most recent endeavor to create something positive in my current lifestyle, I’ve also become the stresstaurant cork dork. In honor of Earth Day, I am collecting all of the corks at the stresstaurant for one week and will either donate them to charities for the creation of green projects or will make them into art projects, sell them, and then donate the money to charity.

If all goes well, I plan to expand and continue running the project.

Why do this? Well, I realized that I write and preach about leading a positive lifestyle, being generous, and giving, but felt I wasn’t fully living this prophecy. Therefore, I wanted to start doing things that would make a difference by starting where I currently am. Action. So much of the time we say, “I will start X as soon as…” or “Someday I will…” But why not start today?

Internationally, 340 tons of cork are produced each year, and it has been painful for me to watch as we send cork after cork to the landfill when I know already that they could easily be reused. Corks can be ground back down to make floor and wall coverings, shoe platforms, moisture-retaining mulch, woodwind instruments, the interior of baseballs, and more.

This for me is about thinking creatively about everyday things, looking at something average and making it extraordinary.

And when it comes to trying something new, start now. Why not? The worst thing that could happen is never having the chance to have tried.

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Where the Yellow Line Ends…

Now we go where the yellow line ends from cars (with people inside) driving on it. Where the yellow line, worn down, disappears, fades away, diminishes in rubble, begins the end of the road where humans stopped paving it. Instead, it becomes the dusty trail with the houses without roofs falling and crumbling around it, with green land spreading for miles beside it. This is the place where buildings are not built in apartmental layers, but swell with life inside them and overflow with life outside of them. I have become part of that swollen life of shared private spaces.

Sometimes where the yellow line ends there aren’t even cars or people. Other times there are, lost in the dust. But this is what we do and don’t find on the unpaved road: turns turning, bends bending, people peopling–doing as people do along the road. They come and they go. I am out to follow some of them, walk beside some of them, lead some of them, and sometimes to people on my own. 

For now I enjoy the ride. Live. Love the countryside, its breaking-down houses with rusting tin roofs and fading, flaking paint and holes where the concrete was as if war wore it down, but really it all has to do with how it was built. Throughout our youth, we draw simplistic pictures of houses with triangular roofs, square windows, and rectangular doors so that when we are older we know what a prototypical house looks like and understand how to build one. But over time, it can become a breaking down home. With families and stories inside it that we don’t know how to reconstruct because well-built families don’t come with an instruction manual. 

Here, there are holes in weathered doors, gates to backyards that lead to nowhere, and metal wire reaching upward from cement rooftops toward heaven asking God to build the second story. And they remain, the wires, always optimistic. The houses with tin roofs don’t have upward-reaching wires; there’s no hope for a second story. They won’t build upon what was made, only construct a community of people within their existing walls and watch them as they crumble slightly and break down under the humidity and humility of communal respiration and from the rain that leaks in through the space between the cement walls and the tin roofs that no one could fix.

But this is out there, not in the center of the city where the yellow line runs. Where 15 apartment rooms are stacked on top of each other with one person living inside each. And the top story has a terrace over it instead of a cement roof with sticking-up metal wires or a single sheet of tin.

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Enrique’s Guns

We found out the other day that Enrique hides seven guns around his house. One he keeps on top of the large armoire in the kitchen, another I know he keeps hidden somewhere near his pillow at night. The other five I’d have to go on a scavenger hunt to locate because he said they are hidden in places that no one would expect. Perhaps between the collection of Danish butter cookie tins along the shelf in the kitchen; perhaps between the old cigar boxes and alcohol bottles and cigarette packets in the living room; perhaps tucked away behind the things that hang on the walls: large metal pots, an alligator skin, twenty different cowboy hats.

Enrique is a collector, just like his father. He gathers antique memorabilia, gifts, lessons. Objects that tell stories. And he speaks on their behalf as I speak on his behalf, simply passing his words from one language to another so he, and his collection, can be understood.

These things, he hangs them on walls, he lines them in careful rows on shelves, arranges “just so” on tables, and organizes them by shape and color and design and age. One of his most prideful collections fills the entire living room: guns. According to Enrique, he only owns half of the weaponry that he inherited from his father, and it is one of the most important collections of guns in Argentina. His brother, he said, has the other half.

The other night, one of our guests, who was from Vermont, asked Enrique to tell stories which Sofie and I had not memorized. Enrique shoved his chair away from the table making room for his belly, pressed himself up out of the chair, and trotted to the gun room. He came back with an unloaded (thank God) black pistol and passed it around the table.

“This was a gift from my father when I turned 18,” he said. “Whenever I left home, I used to keep it hidden in a canvas sling under my right arm. One night years later, my future father-in-law and I were driving along together and we passed through this small town with one bar in it, and we decided to have a drink. We walked in and took a seat at one of the tables. Behind the bar, the wall was lined with hundreds of wine bottles of different varietals. The cocktail waitress approached the table to take our order. ‘What can I bring you,’ she asked. His father-in-law extracted a gun from his belt, undid the safety, aimed straight at the bar, and POW! Shot one of the bottles behind the bar. ‘I’ll take a bottle of that kind of wine,’ he said. Then, shaken, the waitress turned to young Enrique and asked, ‘For you sir?’ Enrique reached under his arm for the leather sling, extracted his pistol, undid the safety, aimed straight at the bar, and POW! Shot the bottle right next to the other broken one. ‘I’ll take one of those bottles as well,’ he said. His father-in-law leapt up, grabbed Enrique by the fist, jerked his arm into the air, and shouted, ‘This is my future f*cking son-in-law!”  

 We passed the gun around the table, observing the patchwork on the leather case that he claims he made himself.

Enrique is in the habit of showing not only the guns in the gunroom but also his guns.

            “Feel my arm,” he says, “Now that’s solid rock, and I don’t even go to the gym. I have extremely well-balanced blood levels, and don’t have cholesterol.” I reminded him that we all have cholesterol, but his level is most likely healthy and reasonable, although I don’t believe him. For breakfast, Enrique drinks mate, for lunch Enrique eats cow ribs, sausage, and onions, for dinner Enrique eats whatever beef is left over from the lunchtime asado along with mayonnaise and white bread. And every night before he goes to sleep, he drinks at least one glass of whiskey. “I am as strong as an ox,” he says. “Here, feel my stomach, its solid too.” And I poke his round belly with my pointer finger to affirm that it is in fact solid. “Well, at least we know that if someone were to poke you with a pin you wouldn’t pop,” I told him. “Hey!” he shouted, and then punched me in the arm, and it throbbed with the impact of his gun-strength. “I know already that I’m an ugly son of a bitch, but I love myself,” he said.

“You’re right Enrique,” I say. “I love myself too, even though I don’t have guns like you do,” and I flex at him with an adoring smile. “No,” he says, “You love yourself because you are a spoiled, snob from Southern California with a personal chef, a chauffeur, and a limousine.”

I roll my eyes and shake my head, and as always he wraps me up in his guns, gives me a breath-taking anaconda squeeze, and says, “No really, I love you because you are a big son of bitch just like me.”

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Argentine Tortilla Confusion

As a Southern California native, I am certain that if you were to cut open my veins, I would bleed refried beans. So, this year Mexican Food Deprivation (MFD) has left me running my finger nails down walls for spicy tomatillo sauce, and I have gone to desperate lengths to curb my cravings by paying fifteen dollars for a road kill “burrito.” Mexican food in Argentina is, to say the least, a scarce commodity.

By the time I had reached Northern Argentina, MFD had taken over completely, and I started having dreams about burying myself inside a guacamole-doused, grease-dripping, mile-high taco salad and eating my way out.

 One day, Sofie and I trekked from the funny farm to Chicoana in the afternoon to enjoy our daily merienda, afternoon coffee over at the panadería next door to the church. That day, my MFD symptoms were at a level 3. When we sat down to order our usual, café con leche, the waitress asked, “Would you like something to accompany your coffee: cookies, a croissant …. a tortilla?”

 “T-t-t-t-tortilla, did you just say tortilla?” I grunted, salivating. Suddenly, my spine curved over and sprouted gray fur, which bristled from my hips to my neck. Claws sprung out from my fingernails. I grew six inches taller, the waitress screamed. “Bring me a tortilla!” I shouted as my knees clanked together under the table, and I grasped my chair. “I can’t believe it,” I told Sofie, “All this time we have been here, and they’ve been hoarding all the tortillas in Argentina at this little hole-in-the-wall café.” At only hearing the word tortilla, my MFD symptoms had leapt to a level 9. Only because I knew the waitress would be delivering my tortilla in minutes, did I control myself instead of thrashing around the restaurant, knocking over tables with my tail, and ripping apart counter tops with my fangs. That, and I knew that I was with company. Sofie merely looked at me, smiled, and shook her head. “Americans,” she said, as always.

Finally, ten or fifteen minutes later (the Argentines also have a very different concept of time), I saw the waitress walk around the counter with a silver tray above her head. My heart began to beat faster. 

With two clinks, she first set down our coffees. Then, delicately, Sofie’s media luna, croissant. And then … my tortilla. When I saw what was actually on the plate, I felt like a sailor lost at sea who, in a fog of wild disillusionment, had mistaken a mirage for solid ground. My Argentine tortilla was a rock hard, shipwrecked cube of stale, salty, brittle white bread washed up, in its crisp misery, on a white ceramic plate. I took one bite, but would have preferred to have eaten Wilson the volleyball from Cast Away.

 A few days later, with symptoms of my MFD still taking over my mind, Sofie and I decided to improvise a Mexican food dinner at the funny farm. Boldly, I marched into the grocery store just to check one more time if they had anything that was similar to Mexican tortillas.

 “Hi,” I said to the clerk. “Do you guys sell tortillas?” Then I stumbled, remembering what he would probably think were tortillas. “I mean, umm … you know those flat round things you use for making Mexican food?” Puzzled look, clerk unsure of what Mexican Food may be. “Like, um it’s baked dough made of flour, and is really thin.”

“Pita bread?” the clerk guessed.

“No, thinner than that,” I said.

“Empanada dough?” he guessed again.

“No, they’re pre-baked.  You know, you would use them to make tacos.”

“What are tacos?”

“A kind of Mexican food.”

He turns to the other two clerks, relays to them what I had been describing, and then all three of them turn to me and shrug their shoulders.

 That night, Sofie and I wrapped ground beef in Mozzarella-cheese-covered crepes, and prepared a mean guacamole with lemon.

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Down on the Funny Farm in Northern Argentina

Enrique

“Hello, I’m Enrique!” the farm owner said in Spanish.

“Hello, I’m Enrique!” the Dutch girl repeated back, shaking his hand. She, like many guests that come to the ranch to go horseback riding, did not speak a word of Spanish.

“No, I’m Enrique!” he contested, pointing at his chest with a furrowed brow.

“No, I’m Enrique!” she repeated back not understanding at all what she was saying, but contesting it with great confidence and pride. Sofia, the other translator, told her with a little snicker, “Um, you just said that you were Enrique… twice.” The Dutch girl blushed. Enrique pointed at her, and with a quaking, husky belly laugh, bellowed in English, “RED FACE, RED FACE!” The poor girl turned 100 shades of purple.

And so it goes on what I nicknamed the Funny Farm where I have worked as an interpreter since April. Located twenty minutes outside of Chicoana, a small town one hour outside of Salta in Northwestern Argentina, the ranch is that kind of place no one would go looking for you, or know how to get there if they were. When I arrived, Enrique told me, “There are two types of people that stay here: crazies and refugees. We’ll wait and see which category you fit into. I personally am the only normal one. Everyone else is crazy.” He happens to have an entire room full of old guns, claims to love witches, and is afraid of vomit and spiders. Totally normal.

As of now, Enrique has officially diagnosed me as crazy, though I contest that I am not. As a bargaining chip, I do admit that if I were crazy I wouldn’t recognize my insanity because I was … crazy. I attribute his prognosis to this simple, and embarrassing fact: I have broken more things during my short time on the ranch than I most likely have in the course of my lifetime. Here’s the list: two chairs (one metal; one wood), a glass lamp, a cup, the toilet’s external connecting pipe, the toilet’s flusher, a glass, another lamp outside my metal crazy-bin trailer. I also nearly broke my tooth when I crunched down on a rock hidden in my black beans. I also shorted out the electricity in my trailer, not once, but twice! The electrician knows me more by habit now than by name.

But, I think in a way we all are crazy. Sofie, who has years of horse-riding experience, fell down in front of her horse before even getting on it. Nicolas, one Gaucho who works on the funny farm, is absolutely terrified of frogs. Ricardo, the other Gaucho who works on the funny farm, walks with his broad chest as high as his ego and refuses to use words like cute or call his horse Cinnamon as I have named it. But one day, his mother caught him singing “This Little Light of Mine,” which he always makes fun of me for chanting while we are out on the trail.

As Jack Kerouac claims, “The only people for me are the mad ones, the ones who are mad to live, mad to talk, mad to be saved, desirous of everything at the same time, the ones who never yawn or say a commonplace thing, but burn, burn, burn, like fabulous yellow roman candles exploding like spiders across the stars.”

And besides, we are all just a little bit crazy, except Enrique…

Cooking "Super Panchos," or hot dogs, in the gun room with Sofia and Enrique

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Sebastian Opens the Door …

At the midnight hour, the front door glides open always with a simple buzz and click. There is no turning of the nob. There is no searching for the key. From a distant podium beyond the glass door, my doorman Sebastian recognizes my face amidst the darkness and simply  pushes a button to let me in. Sebastian reminds me of a slightly older, slightly skinner, slightly balder Orville Redenbocher. Minus the black frame glasses. And when I walk through the door, he rises from his chair, quickly interlocks his hands behind his back, and bows congenially, his red tie slipping out of his plaid black and tan sport coat. Immediately, he reaches for the wayward tie and puts it back in place with a tap and sweeps off the front of his suit. And then, he smiles, though I always notice that he is missing exactly one tooth on the left side. 

When I first arrived to my Buenos Aires apartment in November 2009, my portero, or doorkeeper, thought for a while that I was German. He greeted me with “Guten Tag” and bid me farewell with “Auf Wiedersehen.” I found his mistaken greetings so adorable that I never wanted to correct him. There eventually came a day, however, when he finally asked where I was from. “California,” I said with a sheepish grin, uncomfortably twisting my blue Converse shoe into the ground as if I were putting out a cigarette. But he only smiled and said with a nod, “Very well then, Auf Wiedersehen.” And he walked away whistling.

Sebastian has been, in both metaphoric and literal ways, my key to Buenos Aires life. When I first arrived, my apartment owner presented me with the impossible, ancient golden skeleton key that someone strategically carved out in a labyrinth of sharp metal turns, corners, and edges that would make getting beyond my front door nearly impossible. I tried the gentle jiggle; I attempted the sneak samurai swirl; I even had conversations with the door. But getting that key to work was more difficult than coaxing a crying bride with cold feet out of the bathroom. That would be until I would hear the elevator crank into action and minutes later, Sebastian would peep his head through its doors to find me crying on the ground, begging my door for mercy. Open, open, open…

With the passing weeks, I have returned home routinely from work at Parrilla Buenos Aires restaurant to enjoy midnight chats with Sebastian, everyday him continuing to open doors with insights on Argentine cinema, politics, and cultural norms. This evening, however, I entered the building to find Sebastian with his tie untucked, wiping away tears. With a few passing words, my portero eventually opened a new door for me: the door to his heart. He allowed me to linger on the stoop of his life trials and feel with him the painful rhythm of passing lives: the pulse that reminds us everyday that we are alive while others whom we have loved simply are not.

He had been listening to a local radio show when a man called in, begging God why his little girl was just diagnosed with cancer. There were a number of callers who, thereafter, expressed their sympathy over the radio for this man’s situation. And even though Sebastian did not phone in, he commiserated with this stranger, alone in the hallway, until he opened the door for me. With eyes like reflecting pools, he confessed to me that his own daughter died at age 17. Then, a withdrawn tear escaped, rolling down the steep staircase below his eyes. The other tears, however, he struggled to keep locked up. 

 I didn’t turn the key farther to find out how exactly she had left. I simply shared a quiet, teary eyed moment in the doorway with Sebastian, relating to him quietly  in the same way that he had related to the caller on the radio. I too continue missing someone who left the earth before I thought anyone would show them the exit from this world and give them the key to the next.

Then, he says, “God will never give us reasons for why people come and go. The comings and goings are just cosas de la vida … a part of life.” 

And at the end of our silent memorial, we parted ways with a mutual Auf Wiedersehen. And when I reached my entryway, I was able to open my door without hassle; I know for sure because Sebastian taught me how to use the key.

***Dedicated to Ryan whose spirit continues to walk with me through life’s revolving series of opening and closing doors. Thanks for showing me the way …

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Getting Real: When Life Gives You Too Much Lemonade …

When life gives you lemons, make lemonade … but what do you do when life skips the lemons, hands you three gallons of lemonade, and chants, “Chug it, chug it!” with the enthusiasm of a fraternity initiation? I, personally, could only happily enjoy one glass of lemonade before the power of diminishing returns would begin to take affect. When it comes to life and lemonade, you can have too much of a good thing.

At this point in my life, I am working creatively and optimistically to make opportunities for myself. I believe a lot in the power of positive thinking and the influence of visualization, most likely because this is the coping mechanism I developed after hitting rock bottom about a year ago.

I used to be that person who sat on Craigslist for hours searching for answers, turning in hundreds of online applications without response. One by one, I was rejected from such positions as environmental law office assistant, Amazon jungle cruise operator, gardener, house painter, bartender etc etc.  Even Oscar Mayer Wiener turned me down when I applied to drive their Wiener Mobile around America. I desperately wanted to be a “Hotdogger.” At least I scored the phone interview, but it was a personality screening, so does that say something about me?

From reaching that desperate place, where I literally woke up some mornings feeling without a purpose, I trained myself to make something out of nothing, but no one ever told me what to do when you are suddenly given too many great options to choose from.

Buenos Aires, Better Opportunities

Despite my status as illegal immigrant in Argentina, I at last formed a lifestyle that I am excited about. I began volunteering as grant writer with Mariano’s non-profit, and working as a hostess/translator at a local Argentinean grill. I was content until, along with the fury of the raging sun and blistering city heat, there came rushing in the test to everything I had established.

One morning, Mariano summons me to his office. Using the nickname he chose for me he says, “Che, Super Meg,” and he begins rolling his marble between his palms. Give and receive. “I see ourselves on the edge of something big.” We had just discovered a number of potential funding opportunities, but were moving at a slow pace since I only came into the office three times a week.

“I really want to press forward, so, how about I begin paying you for your work if you come more hours?” I was amazed. I would have offered to come for free, but I couldn’t possibly say no to his generous proposal. Then ….. an email shot into my mailbox …

It was from the director of a program in Argentina called Connecting Schools to the World. For a reasonable fee, participants are sent to live with a family in the countryside and teach English at a local school. After investigating the program from all angles, I can confirm that it is not only legitimate but also a fantastic experience. Earlier, I had written the director to tell her I wouldn’t be participating because I couldn’t afford the tuition.

That afternoon, she wrote me back generously offering a couple small projects, which would more than likely cover the fee. If I accepted her offer, I would start training in a week, and move to Cordoba by the end of the month. This would also mean turning down Mariano’s offer. I needed a tranquil place to consider my options, so I went home.

As I walked in the door, Mabel (the señora that started living with us not too long ago) leaps into my path and shouts, “I’m ready to start English classes with you! How about this Thursday?”

“Ummmm…sure,” I tell her. We had been discussing the idea of doing conversation classes together, but had never set a date. Suddenly, she was ready.

That evening, I went to work at the Parrilla. When I entered the restaurant, I gave all of the waiters a kiss on the cheek, which is the customary Argentinean greeting. One waiter, Alejandro,  just about breezes by me on the way to a table, but stops to tell me, “Megan, this week you and me, we’re going to start English classes. I want two times a week, one hour each session. We can meet at McDonald’s down the street just before work!”

“Of course!” I say enthusiastically, but as he walks away, I slump over the hostess stand. What to do! The feeling of indecision was tangoing at the base of my stomach.

I saw the positive side in everything I had been offered. Each opportunity to me sounded as adventurous and exciting as the other even though the experiences would be remarkably different. Even if I stayed in Buenos Aires, I wouldn’t have time for it all. What path was mine? And how ever could I say no to anything that’s good? What would I be missing out on by closing doors? I didn’t know how to decide. I’m not the type who draws out charts to weigh pros and cons.

But naturally amidst my state of indecision, there arose a natural, unmistakable intuition. It was an overwhelmingly powerful whisper that told me, even though I couldn’t foresee the outcome, my time in Buenos Aires is not complete. Something is evolving here, be it a challenge or an opportunity. 

So, I made the difficult decision to just go with that feeling and continue forward with what I am currently creating. This feeling couldn’t possibly be misguided if it arose from inside me. It was the same intuition that brought me here originally, and for whatever reason, is the same that keeps me here now as well. 

“Always listen to the little voice.” – A quote from my mother that thus far has proved to be true, whatever the truth may be.

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